When it comes to Barbera in the New World, no one does it better than California’s Sierra Foothills appellation. Nestled on the western slopes of the Sierra Nevada Mountains, this winegrowing region boasts high elevation, a climate of hot days and cold nights, and varied soils that range from sandy clay loam to decomposed granite and volcanic soil. Naturally low in grape yield, the wines from this region are concentrated and complex—especially so with Barbera, which has found this region as a true home outside of its native region of Piedmont in Northern Italy.
Barbera, a wine that expresses naturally high acidity and gentle tannins, is crafted in a variety of ways—dependent, of course, on terroir, viticultural practices and winemaking techniques. Some are lighter in body and style, while other possess more oak influence and lean towards fuller, richer bodies. Below is an in depth look at the different styles of Barbera, as seen through four Amador County wine producers. Amador County, which possesses two sub-appellations of the Sierra Foothills—Shenandoah Valley and Fiddletown—is no stranger to Italian grape varieties. Zinfandel, Sangiovese and Barbera are the primary Italian red grape varieties grown in this region, and ever since the early 1970s, Barbera has consistently been a championed varietal of the region.
For the past two years, Amador County Barbera producers have teamed up to host the annual Barbera Festival every year in June—an event that showcases Barbera from all around California, many of which come from the local Sierra Foothills wineries. As the event has gained notoriety, wine enthusiasts and professionals have come to recognize that the terroir of the region is ideally suited to the grape variety—and it certainly shows in these recent bottles from Helwig Winery, Binz Wines, Fiddletown Cellars and Borjon Winery.
Fiddletown Cellars: 2012 Reserve Barbera
The vineyards of Fiddletown Cellars, located in the appellation from which the winery derives its name, sit at an elevation of 1,800 feet and possess the longest growing season in Amador County. This allows for exceptional hang time, steady ripening and developed complexity in the grapes. Only 50 cases of this 2012 Reserve Barbera were made. This particular bottling finds an excellent balance between a lighter-styled Barbera with high acid and a heavier-styled Barbera with full body and intense oak.
The 2012 Reserve Barbera boasts a nose full of red cherry liqueur, black cherry, ripe blueberry and vanilla. The palate is silky on entry with medium acid levels and noticeable oak influence of vanilla. The body is round and luscious with flavors of cherry, blueberry, baking spice and spiced plum on the finish. Tannins are gentle in this luscious wine, and it is an excellent choice for pairing with tomato-based dishes and sauces—though the wine can most certainly hold its own without food, as well.
Borjón Winery: 2013 Barbera Reposado
The seed for Borjón Winery was first planted in the early 1990s, when the Borjón family began working in the vineyards in the Sierra Foothills appellation. With their own labor contracting and vineyard management business, the family had always dreamed of opening their own winery. In 2009, this dream became a reality when Isy Borjón opened up a tasting room in the heart of Shenandoah Valley. Ever since, the extensive knowledge and experience of the Borjón family has translated into an incredible collection of wines for their namesake winery.
Borjón Winery’s 2013 Barbera Reposado is true to the style of Old World Italian Barbera in just about every way. The nose expresses aromas of cherry and smoke, while the palate is full of classic, juicy, tart fruit flavors that are so reminiscent of great Italian Barbera. Pleasurable acid is balanced by bright red fruit, such as raspberry, cherry and strawberry. The oak influence is subtle and tactful, letting the juicy, mouthwatering fruit shine on the palate. Because of its high acid, this wine is also an excellent choice for pairing with tomato-based dishes and sauces. By far, of these four wines, Borjón’s expression is the most suited for classic Italian cuisine.
Binz Wines: 2013 Barbera
Binz Wines focuses production on single vineyard bottlings from distinct Sierra Foothills vineyards. Their 2013 Barbera comes from the Crain/Sleeper Ranch Vineyard and is one of the Barberas in this tasting that boasts a richer, more full style. Mixed fruit aromas of blueberry, rhubarb, strawberry and black cherry mingle with aromas of vanilla; the palate is unabashedly silky and round, with gentle acid and complex layers of red fruit. Mildly tart flavors of cherry and raspberry balance out the spice notes. This wine is a great choice for drinking on its own, as the lower acid and stronger oak influence may overpower traditional dishes that go well with lighter-styled Barbera. As a richer, fuller-styled Barbera, this 2013 Binz bottling is an excellent choice.
Helwig Winery: 2013 Barbera
In Shenandoah Valley, Helwig Winery produces their collection of wines from vineyards locations in the various sub-appellations of the Sierra Foothills. Their 2013 Barbera expresses cherry and distinct aromas of mint on the nose, while the lighter-styled palate is round and smooth, with flavors of cherry, raspberry and intense vanilla. For lovers of oak, this Barbera is definitely a must-try, as it achieves nice fruit flavors in a richer, more oak-influenced style that makes it a good choice for drinking on its own.
*Originally published on Examiner.